It’s impossible to overstate the magnitude of Ruth Stone’s achievement, even while it’s difficult to define and describe the stubborn genius, the courage, the vivacity, and the inimitable clarity of vision with which for more than three quarters of a century she has persisted in making her astonishing poems. Now ninety-one and nearly blind, she has published eleven volumes of verse, most recently Ordinary Words (1999), In the Next Galaxy (2000), and In the Dark (2004). And she’s still writing with Yeatsian intensity and her own distinctive wit, still addressing her great subjects—and those of so many other major artists: time, memory, loss, and desire.
I had the good luck to meet Ruth more than three decades ago, when in the fall of 1973 we were both teaching at Indiana University, I as a “regular” tenure-track associate professor and she as a visiting lecturer. Luminously beautiful, with ivory skin and a Pre-Raphaelite mass of long red hair, she was then in her mid fifties and had been eking out a meager living for herself and her three daughters ever since her adored husband, Walter Stone—a poet, critic, and novelist—had mysteriously hanged himself in a Bloomsbury rooming house while the family was on sabbatical in England. The ineradicable trauma of Walter’s death and her impassioned widowhood has, of course, been one of Ruth’s enduring subjects, but so too has been the difficulty of making a (financial) living while (emotionally) living on. By the time I met her, Ruth had long been an itinerant poet-teacher, traveling the highways and byways of our country as, like a sort of American Basho, she went from campus to campus. Because she hates heights and refuses to fly, she journeyed on what she once in conversation called “Desperate Buses” (and that phrase, she speculated, might be a good book title).
With her unruly hair streaming to her shoulders, her raffish transformation of a bourgeois second-hand coat (see the poem of that title) into a shamanistic garment, the visionary gleamings of her poems as well as their comical gleanings of absurd Americana, Ruth was a charismatic figure who elicited the admiration of countless students along with the uneasiness of some administrators. She didn’t—and doesn’t—suffer fools or “male gorillas” (see that poem) gladly, admits the desires and dreads of “the older body” with poignant candor (see ”Periphery” along with “The Ungrateful”), is a devoted reader of The Scientific American, and never ceases to discern the “happiness” even “in muted things.” Always a visionary, she has asked “Who is the widow’s muse?” while declaring that “When I forget to weep,/I hear the peeping tree toads/creeping up the bark”—the small lives extending beyond and beneath perception. And her audience for such epiphanies grew as she wandered from state to state, until finally, when she was in her seventies, she got a tenure-track job at SUNY-Binghamton, and then, in a triumphant denouement probably unparalleled in academia, she was awarded tenure at the age of seventy-five.
By the time she was in her eighties, Ruth had become one of her institution’s most acclaimed figures, as the prizes and honors she has long deserved at last began to come her way: in 2000 the National Book Critics Circle Award, in 2002 the National Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets. Yet, as in “At Eighty-three She Lives Alone,” she continues to speak from and for the peripheral, the ones whom “They barely let . . . through the check-out line.” After retiring from teaching at eighty-five, she moved permanently to Vermont, where she’s long had an old farmhouse in the mountains that she bought half a century ago, with some fellowship money. Her daughters and most of her grandchildren—many writers and artists themselves–live not too far away. And though she is, as the title of her latest book has it, “in the dark,” she continues to transcribe visions that are bittersweet in their brilliance. “If your brain goes on and on, as it should under normal conditions,” she has matter of factly observed, “there’s more in it and your writing will get more profound.” The backward glance with which she ends “The Jewels,” a poem she published in 2004, proves that point.
Body, I said,
moment by moment we wore our jewels,
we took them every day into the sunlight,
to the blind leper
on the side of the road.
No matter how and where they are viewed, the jewels of Stone’s long-lived art will dazzle with their radiant vitality.
Editor’s Note:Persimmon Tree wishes to thank Ruth Stone for her permission to include her poetry in the magazine. We also thank the following publishers for graciously allowing us to include the poems that appear here.
Second-Hand Coat (New & Selected, Godine, 1987)
“Second-Hand Coat,” page 1.
“Curtains,” page 15.
“How Aunt Maud Took to Being a Woman,” page 32.
“Periphery,” page 70.
Simplicity (Paris Press, 1995)
“The Ungrateful,” page 53.
“The Mother’s Eyes,” page 95.
Ordinary Words (Paris Press, 1999)
“Male Gorillas,” page 15.
In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon, 2002)
“At Eighty-Three She Lives Alone,” page 65.
“Mantra” page 96.
In the Dark (Copper Canyon, 2004)
“Floaters,” page 37.